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How Ben Fountain Overcame Being Called a Genius

He was celebrated in The New Yorker, but struggled on his way to his first novel.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

In October 2008, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a story for The New Yorker about late bloomers and the idea that genius is not always immediately recognized. His main (and only modern-day) example: Ben Fountain and his debut collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. It was a star-making profile. Gladwell set Fountain on a pedestal next to Cézanne. Midway through his piece, Gladwell mentioned that Fountain was working on a novel. “It was supposed to come out this year,” he wrote of Fountain’s Texas Itch. “It’s late.”

What Gladwell didn’t know, or didn’t write, is that the reason the book was late was because Fountain was struggling. He’d been working on The Texas Itch, a story set in Dallas about money and politics and a real estate deal tied to a sports arena, for more than six years, going back and forth with Lee Boudreaux, his editor at Ecco (an imprint of publishing giant HarperCollins). They went through several full drafts, tearing it apart, trying to fix a problem they couldn’t even really diagnose. The sudden glare of Gladwell’s spotlight only made the flaws more obvious.

Two months later, Boudreaux told Fountain that Ecco wasn’t going to publish the book. She put it more gently: “You don’t do something as amazing as Che Guevara and have Malcolm Gladwell write about you in The New Yorker, and then end up putting out something that you don’t think is your best work.”

Before I met Fountain a couple of years ago, i knew only what everyone else did, and much of that was from Gladwell’s New Yorker profile. He grew up in North Carolina and moved to Dallas after graduating from Duke University’s law school in 1983. For a few years he practiced real estate law at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. But then, having only one published piece (an article for a law review), he quit in 1988 to become a writer. His wife, Sharie, was supportive of this decision emotionally and financially, since she was already a partner at Thompson & Knight.

And he did write—every day, generally short stories, some of which he sold. But for the next two decades, Fountain was essentially a stay-at-home dad.

Things started turning around for him in the early 2000s. He sold more stories, won a few awards for his work. Then, in 2006, Ecco published Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. The book was a critical and commercial success. It made best-seller lists and earned him more honors, including a prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award for emerging authors. (Past winners include novelist Jeffrey Eugenides and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who both went on to win Pulitzers.)

You know the rest. Gladwell wrote his story, then Boudreaux asked Fountain to stop writing his. But then what? I asked Fountain to lunch to find out. He picked Flying Fish in Preston Center on a lark, having wondered about it for years. (He lives nearby but had never eaten there.) I wanted to know how he dealt with losing something he’d worked on for so long, what the grieving process was like. Turns out, there wasn’t one. Not for The Texas Itch.

The call came on a Monday in early December 2008. The day before, his mother-in-law died. He spent the following weeks dealing with that. Then it was the holidays. Then he and Sharie moved to Austin, where Fountain was to spend a semester at the University of Texas teaching intermediate fiction writing to juniors and seniors. By the time he could take a moment for himself, it was January, and it was time to start writing again.

“If I’m not writing, I get depressed,” Fountain says. Still boyish at 54, Fountain doesn’t look like much else depresses him.

About a year later, he turned in the first 100 or so pages of what would become Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that follows a young soldier and his squad as they navigate an increasingly odd day at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving 2004. If you buy the book, which will be published this month, you’ll find those same 100 pages.

“Not a word was changed,” Boudreaux says. (Although Fountain remembers a bit more work than that.) “That thing was clearly on fire from the minute he started writing it.”

“Was there apprehension? Yes,” Fountain says, when I ask him what it was like turning in his second stab at a first novel. “But I felt like I had something that was good.”

He’s right. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a funny, poignant, and bizarre book, often all at once. Best-selling novelist and Vietnam War vet Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) called Billy Lynn “the Catch-22 of the Iraq War,” and though that sounds a little too grand, it’s not far off. It wasn’t the first thing Fountain wrote after giving up on The Texas Itch. He wrote a few short pieces, sort of clearing the decks, mostly because he was too busy teaching for the first time to focus on anything more involved. (“It was a lot of work,” he says. “I had to reinvent the wheel—or invent the wheel.”) But Billy Lynn had been hanging around in his head for years. Fountain came up with the idea in 2004. It was a few weeks after the presidential election, during the Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving. Everyone was over at his house, eating and half-watching the game. Fountain had downed a couple of martinis by the time the halftime show started. He sat on the sofa, stunned.

“It was just such an insane mash-up of the very worst of American culture,” he says. “It was like militarism and triumphalism mixed in with the fluffiest kind of pop culture and soft porn. I’m just sitting there thinking, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. The really amazing thing was: it’s normal.”

What he noticed most was a brief shot of a group of six or seven soldiers in the middle of it all. “They’re lean and they’re sunburned and they’re wearing desert fatigues,” Fountain says. “When the camera zooms in on them, your eye just immediately registers: those are real soldiers, they’ve been over there, they just came back. They’re kind of stumbling around, laughing. I realized, one, they’re combat soldiers, they’ve been over there, and, two, they’re drunk. They don’t give a damn about any of this. It’s a joke. It’s foolish. I thought about what that must do to your mind, to be over there in that ultimate reality, and then come back and drop down in the middle of this surreal—yeah, of course you’re gonna be drunk.”

That group of soldiers—or a version of them, wandering through the last stop on a victory tour for a war they haven’t won and are about to go back to—became the center of Billy Lynn. Fountain follows the soldiers over the course of one day at Texas Stadium—that day, the day that always stuck in his head—as he explores every corner of that insane mash-up he remembered. It’s a war novel, yes, but it’s never just that.

Billy Lynn is a soldier, but he’s also just a 19-year-old kid, in the Army almost by accident, confused by everything—family, love, country, patriotism, football, the distant future, the recent past. The only thing he’s sure of is what to do when another member of Bravo Squad goes down, and, for that, he doesn’t consider himself a hero, merely well-trained. The absurdity of Lynn’s situation allows Fountain room to comment on the war, obviously, but also Hollywood and religion and sports, among various other capital-letter Big Themes. Not to mention the parts of Texas (and Dallas, specifically) that he still keeps at arm’s length.

“In Dallas, if you’re people of our inclination, it really keeps you on your toes,” he says. “You’re always being challenged—your thoughts, just the way you look at the world—because mainstream American culture is always in your face.”

The second time I saw Fountain was last summer, at a pool party at his house. I didn’t know him well—I’d met him only once before, at a small dinner party, and we’d corresponded over email occasionally—so I was surprised by the invitation.

That afternoon, I saw a side of him I hadn’t expected. Not long after most of the guests had arrived, Fountain began organizing a game of pool basketball. It is not hyperbole when I say what transpired was the roughest, most competitive game of pool basketball I have ever participated in, as everyone took their cues from Fountain, who, underneath his mild-mannered exterior, is an absolute pit bull. Thorne Anderson, a photojournalist and UNT professor, suffered a scratch across his chest that made him look like he’d wrestled a grizzly. I still have a scar on my shin where I was thrown into the pool stairs.

Seeing Fountain in the pool that day, a lot of things started to make sense. That Fountain almost immediately started writing again after losing The Texas Itch—never stopped, really—is no surprise. He’s a very determined person; he has an internal drive his placid exterior disguises. He has been writing for more than two decades, even when there seemed to be no point to it. He had stories to tell. 

“Something like that is, in a way, a writer’s worst nightmare. You work on a book for years and years, and nothing comes of it,” Fountain says. “I think that’s part of the psychological burden of trying to write a novel. But, you know, that worst thing happened, and a day or two later I realized, well, I’m still here. It’s not like they’ve withdrawn the permission to write. I’ve got a lot more stories and books I want to write, so I’ll just keep writing.”

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